Reading Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
Saturday, January 14th, 2017
Monday, January 9th, 2017
Well, this is nice! Susan has listed the passages she highlighted from Resilient Web Design.
In the spirit of the book, I read it in a browser, and I broke up my highlights by chapters. As usual, you should read the book yourself, these highlights are taken out of context and better when you’ve read the whole thing.
Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017
Monday, January 2nd, 2017
2016 reading list
I was having a think back over 2016, trying to remember which books I had read during the year. To the best of my recollection, I think that this is the final tally…
- Endurance by Alfred Lansing
- The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
- The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin
- Design For Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher
- Practical SVG by Chris Coyier
- Demystifying Public Speaking by Lara Hogan
- Working The Command Line by Remy Sharp
- The Revenant by Michael Punke
- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
- Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss
- High Rise by J.G. Ballard
- The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
- Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel
- Greybeard by Brian Aldiss
- Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
- The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
- The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
- Death’s End by Cixin Liu
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Seems kinda meagre to me. Either I need to read more books or I need to keep better track of what books I’m reading when. Starting now.
Reading Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.
Wednesday, December 14th, 2016
The typography of a web book
I’m a sucker for classic old-style serif typefaces: Caslon, Baskerville, Bembo, Garamond …I love ‘em. That’s probably why I’ve always found the typesetting in Edward Tufte’s books so appealing—he always uses a combination of Bembo for body copy and Gill Sans for headings.
ET Book is a Bembo-like font for the computer designed by Dmitry Krasny, Bonnie Scranton, and Edward Tufte. It is free and open-source.
When I was styling Resilient Web Design, I knew that the choice of typeface would be one of the most important decisions I would make. Remembering that open source ET Book font, I plugged it in to see how it looked. I liked what I saw. I found it particularly appealing when it’s full black on full white at a nice big size (with lower contrast or sizes, it starts to get a bit fuzzy).
I love, love, love the old-style numerals of ET Book. But I was disappointed to see that ligatures didn’t seem to be coming through (even when I had enabled them in CSS). I mentioned this to Rich and of course he couldn’t resist doing a bit of typographic sleuthing. It turns out that the ligature glyphs are there in the source files but the files needed a little tweaking to enable them. Because the files are open source, Rich was able to tweak away to his heart’s content. I then took the tweaked open type files and ran them through Font Squirrel to generate WOFF and WOFF2 files. I’ve put them on Github.
For this book, I decided that the measure would be the priority. I settled on a measure of around 55 to 60 characters—about 10 or 11 words per line. I used a max-width of 27em combined with Mike’s brilliant fluid type technique to maintain a consistent measure.
It looks great on small-screen devices and tablets. On large screens, the font size starts to get really, really big. Personally, I like that. Lots of other people like it too. But some people really don’t like it. I should probably add a font-resizing widget for those who find the font size too shocking on luxuriously large screens. In the meantime, their only recourse is to fork the CSS to make their own version of the book with more familiar font sizes.
The visceral reaction a few people have expressed to the font size reminds me of the flak Jeffrey received when he redesigned his personal site a few years back:
Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind.
I wonder how the people who complained then are feeling now, a few years on, in a world with Medium in it? Jeffrey’s redesign doesn’t look so extreme any more.
Resilient Web Design will be on the web for a very, very, very long time. I’m curious to see if its type size will still look shockingly large in years to come.
Tuesday, November 8th, 2016
A list of books that have been published in their entirety on the web. If you know of any others, please contribute.
Tuesday, November 1st, 2016
Monica takes a look at the options out there for loading web fonts and settles on a smart asynchronous lazy-loading approach.
Saturday, October 29th, 2016
Lara’s new book really is excellent. I was lucky enough to get an early preview and here’s what I said:
Giving a talk in public can be a frightening prospect but with Lara Hogan at your side, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish. This book is your shield and sword. Speak, friend, and conquer!
Friday, October 21st, 2016
Kevin writes a plea on Ev’s blog for better contrast in web typography:
When you build a site and ignore what happens afterwards — when the values entered in code are translated into brightness and contrast depending on the settings of a physical screen — you’re avoiding the experience that you create. And when you design in perfect settings, with big, contrast-rich monitors, you blind yourself to users. To arbitrarily throw away contrast based on a fashion that “looks good on my perfect screen in my perfectly lit office” is abdicating designers’ responsibilities to the very people for whom they are designing.
Sunday, October 9th, 2016
The Rational Optimist
As part of my ongoing obsession with figuring out how we evaluate technology, I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. It was an exasperating read.
On the one hand, it’s a history of the progress of human civilisation. Like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, it piles on the data demonstrating the upward trend in peace, wealth, and health. I know that’s counterintuitive, and it seems to fly in the face of what we read in the news every day. Mind you, The New York Times took some time out recently to acknowledge the trend.
Ridley’s thesis—and it’s a compelling one—is that cooperation and trade are the drivers of progress. As I read through his historical accounts of the benefits of open borders and the cautionary tales of small-minded insular empires that collapsed, I remember thinking, “Boy, he must be pretty upset about Brexit—his own country choosing to turn its back on trade agreements with its neighbours so that it could became a small, petty island chasing the phantom of self-sufficiency”. (Self-sufficiency, or subsistence living, as Ridley rightly argues throughout the book, correlates directly with poverty.)
But throughout these accounts, there are constant needling asides pointing to the perceived enemies of trade and progress: bureaucrats and governments, with their pesky taxes and rule of law. As the accounts enter the twentieth century, the gloves come off completely revealing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool libertarian fists that Ridley uses to pummel any nuance or balance. “Ah,” I thought, “if he cares more about the perceived evils of regulation than the proven benefits of trade, maybe he might actually think Brexit is a good idea after all.”
It was an interesting moment. Given the conflicting arguments in his book, I could imagine him equally well being an impassioned remainer as a vocal leaver. I decided to collapse this probability wave with a quick Google search, and sure enough …he’s strongly in favour of Brexit.
In theory, an author’s political views shouldn’t make any difference to a book about technology and progress. In practice, they barge into the narrative like boorish gatecrashers threatening to derail it entirely. The irony is that while Ridley is trying to make the case for rational optimism, his own personal political feelings are interspersed like a dusting of irrationality, undoing his own well-researched case.
It’s not just the argument that suffers. Those are the moments when the writing starts to get frothy, if not downright unhinged. There were a number of confusing and ugly sentences that pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder where the editor was that day.
The last time I remember reading passages of such poor writing in a non-fiction book was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the foreword, Taleb provides a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proudly boasting that he does not need an editor.
But there was another reason why I thought of The Black Swan while reading The Rational Optimist.
While Ridley’s anti-government feelings might have damaged his claim to rationality, surely his optimism is unassailable? Take, for example, his conclusions on climate change. He doesn’t (quite) deny that climate change is real, but argues persuasively that it won’t be so bad. After all, just look at the history of false pessimism that litters the twentieth century: acid rain, overpopulation, the Y2K bug. Those turned out okay, therefore climate change will be the same.
It’s here that Ridley succumbs to the trap that Taleb wrote about in his book: using past events to make predictions about inherently unpredictable future events. Taleb was talking about economics—warning of the pitfalls of treating economic data as though it followed a bell-curve curve, when it fact it’s a power-law distribution.
Fine. That’s simply a logical fallacy, easily overlooked. But where Ridley really lets himself down is in the subsequent defence of fossil fuels. Or rather, in his attack on other sources of energy.
When recounting the mistakes of the naysayers of old, he points out that their fundamental mistake is to assume stasis. Hence their dire predictions of war, poverty, and famine. Ehrlich’s overpopulation scare, for example, didn’t account for the world-changing work of Borlaug’s green revolution (and Ridley rightly singles out Norman Borlaug for praise—possibly the single most important human being in history).
Yet when it comes to alternative sources of energy, they are treated as though they are set in stone, incapable of change. Wind and solar power are dismissed as too costly and inefficient. The Rational Optimist was written in 2008. Eight years ago, solar energy must have indeed looked like a costly investment. But things have changed in the meantime.
As Matt Ridley himself writes:
It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.
And yet he fails to apply this thinking when comparing energy sources. If anything, his defence of fossil fuels feels grounded in a sense of resigned acceptance; a sense of …pessimism.
Matt Ridley rejects any hope of innovation from new ideas in the arena of energy production. I hope that he might take his own words to heart:
By far the most dangerous, and indeed unsustainable thing the human race could do to itself would be to turn off the innovation tap. Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.
Friday, September 23rd, 2016
I can very much relate to Jonathan’s learning process (except for the bit about reading Hacker News—spit):
I think I read about 20-30 times more than I write, but the writing part is still crucial for helping me get stuff straight in my own head.
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016
Why do pull quotes exist on the web?
There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph. Or it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s spoiling a sentence that you are about to read in subsequent paragraphs.
There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph.
To be honest, I find pull quotes pretty annoying in printed magazines too, but I can at least see the justification for them there: if you’re flipping through a magazine, they act as eye-catching inducements to stop and read (in much the same way that good photography does or illustration does). But once you’re actually reading an article, they’re incredibly frustrating.
You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice.
You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice. Blotting them out is easier said than done on a small-screen device. At least on a large screen, pull quotes can be shunted off to the side, but on handheld devices, pull quotes really make no sense at all.
Are pull quotes online an example of a skeuomorph? “An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material.”
I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions. The default assumption is that pull quotes on the web are fine, because everyone else is doing pull quotes on the web. But has anybody ever stopped to ask why? It was this same spiral of unexamined assumptions that led to the web drowning in a sea of splash pages in the early 2000s.
I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions.
I’m genuinely curious to hear the design justification for pull quotes on the web (particularly on mobile), because as a reader, I can give plenty of reasons for their removal.
Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
Monday, May 30th, 2016
I know exactly how Tim feels. It’s hard not to feel guilty when you’re reading something instead of spending the time doing “real work”, but it always ends up being time well spent:
Reading time can be hard to justify, even to oneself. There is no deadline. It’s not going to move any immediate projects forward (most likely). And it often feels like a waste of time, especially if your interests are diverse. But it’s important. Most great work is the product of collaborative thinking.
Sunday, May 15th, 2016
I have a new role at Clearleft. It’s not a full-time role. It’s in addition to my existing role of …um …whatever it is I do at Clearleft.
Anyway, my new part-time role is that of being a content buddy. Sounds a little dismissive when I put it like that. Let me put in capitals…
My new part-time role is that of being a Content Buddy.
This is Ellen’s idea. She’s been recruiting Content Guardians and Content Buddies. The Guardians will be responsible for coaxing content out of people, encouraging to write that blog post, article, or case study. The role of the Content Buddy is to help shepherd those pieces into the world.
I have let it be known throughout the office that I am available—day or night, rain or shine—for proof-reading, editing, and general brain-storming and rubber-ducking.
On my first official day as a Content Buddy on Friday I helped Ben polish off a really good blog post (watch this space), listened to a first run-through of Charlotte’s upcoming talk at the Up Front conference in Manchester (which is shaping up to be most excellent), and got together with Paul for a mutual brainstorming session for future conference talks. The fact that Paul is no longer a full-time employee at Clearleft is a mere technicality—Content Buddies for life!
Paul is preparing a talk on design systems for Smashing Conference in Freiburg in September. I’m preparing a talk on the
A element for the HTML Special part of CSS Day in Amsterdam in just one month’s time (gulp!). We had both already done a bit of mind-mapping to get a jumble of ideas down on paper. We learned that from Ellen’s excellent workshop.
Then we started throwing ideas back and forth, offering suggestions, and spotting patterns. Once we had lots of discrete chunks of stuff outlined (but no idea how to piece them together), we did some short intense spurts of writing using the fiendish TheMostDangerousWritingApp.com. I looked at Paul’s mind map, chose a topic from it for him, and he had to write on that non-stop for three to five minutes. Meanwhile he picked a topic from my mind map and I had to do the same. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. Very quickly we had chunks of content that we could experiment with, putting them in together in different ways to find different narrative threads. I might experiment with publishing them as short standalone blog posts.
The point was not to have polished, finished content but rather to get to the “shitty first draft” stage quickly. We were following Hemingway’s advice:
Write drunk, edit sober.
…but not literally. Mind you, I could certainly imagine combining beer o’clock on Fridays with Content Buddiness. That wasn’t an option on this particular Friday though, as I had to run off to band practice with Salter Cane. A very different, and altogether darker form of content creation.
Saturday, April 23rd, 2016
I wrote a little something recently about some inspiring projects that people are working on. Like Matt’s Machine Supply project. There’s a physical side to that project—a tweeting book-vending machine in London—but there’s also the newsletter, 3 Books Weekly.
I was honoured to be asked by Matt to contribute three book recommendations. That newsletter went out last week. Here’s what I said…
A book about the history of telegraphy might not sound like the most riveting read, but The Victorian Internet is both fascinating and entertaining. Techno-utopianism, moral panic, entirely new ways of working, and a world that has been utterly transformed: the parallels between the telegraph and the internet are laid bare. In fact, this book made me realise that while the internet has been a great accelerator, the telegraph was one of the few instances where a technology could truly be described as “disruptive.”
After I finished reading the final Iain M. Banks novel I was craving more galaxy-spanning space opera. The premise of Ancillary Justice with its description of “ship minds” led me to believe that this could be picking up the baton from the Culture series. It isn’t. This is an entirely different civilisation, one where song-collecting and tea ceremonies have as much value as weapons and spacecraft. Ancillary Justice probes at the deepest questions of identity, both cultural and personal. As well as being beautifully written, it’s also a rollicking good revenge thriller.
China Miéville’s books are hit-and-miss for me, but this one is a direct hit. The central premise of this noir-ish tale defies easy description, so I won’t even try. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this book is to feel the way your mind is subtly contorted by the author to accept a conceit that should be completely unacceptable. Usually when a book is described as “mind-altering” it’s a way of saying it has drug-like properties, but The City & The City is mind-altering in an entirely different and wholly unique way. If Borges and Calvino teamed up to find The Maltese Falcon, the result would be something like this.
When I sent off my recommendations, I told Matt:
Oh man, it was so hard to narrow this down! So many books I wanted to mention: Station 11, The Peripheral, The Gone-Away World, Glasshouse, Foucault’s Pendulum, Oryx and Crake, The Wind-up Girl …this was so much tougher than I thought it was going to be.
And Matt said:
Tell you what — if you’d be up for writing recommendations for another 3 books, from those ones you mentioned, I’d love to feature those in the machine!
Station Eleven made think about the purpose of art and culture. If art, as Brian Eno describes it, is “everything that you don’t have to do”, what happens to art when the civilisational chips are down? There are plenty of post-pandemic stories of societal collapse. But there’s something about this one that sets it apart. It doesn’t assume that humanity will inevitably revert to an existence that is nasty, brutish and short. It’s also a beautifully-written book. The opening chapter completely sucker-punched me.
On the face of it, this appears to be another post-Singularity romp in a post-scarcity society. It is, but it’s also a damning critique of gamification. Imagine the Stanford prison experiment if it were run by godlike experimenters. Stross’s Accelerando remains the definitive description of an unfolding Singularity, but Glasshouse is the one that has stayed with me.
This isn’t an easy book to describe, but it’s a very easy book to enjoy. A delightful tale of a terrifying apocalypse, The Gone-Away World has plenty of laughs to balance out the existential dread. Try not to fall in love with the charming childhood world of the narrator—you know it can’t last. But we’ll always have mimes and ninjas.
I must admit, it’s a really lovely feeling to get notified on Twitter when someone buys one of the recommended books.
I just vended The City & The City, by China Miéville http://machine.supply/books/genmon/167— Machine Supply (@MachineSupply) March 30, 2016
I just vended The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage http://machine.supply/books/genmon/165— Machine Supply (@MachineSupply) March 31, 2016
Friday, April 8th, 2016